60 Years of the Incredible Hulk

We felt we couldn’t let this momentous anniversary pass without observing it, though you’ll find we have scant to say on the topic. The Incredible Hulk made his first appearance in his very own comic in May, 1962. He was clearly a character creator/publisher Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby believed in, to debut him, untried, in his very own title like that. Typically superhero characters make their first appearances in some other comic book. If they prove popular, then they get their own.

But Lee knew that this was a strong idea and he was right. The original concept was to cross Frankenstein’s monster with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A scientist named Bruce Banner takes a potion which turns him into a monster, and he can’t control it. (I’ve always felt that even Jekyll & Hyde is an adapted idea. The hero’s predicament is very much like that of a werewolf. He can’t control his transformations. Stevenson’s ingenious twist is that it is due to his own hubris; it’s his own fault). As you can see from Kirby’s original design, the character originally looked much more like Universal’s square-headed, green-fleshed Frankenstein as originally played by Boris Karloff. When I was a kid, the concept confused me. A monster as hero? But there are precedents. Quasimodo fits the bill. Occasionally Frankenstein’s monster fits the bill. It’s only when they become enraged that these characters destroy their surroundings. Like the monster in Bride of Frankenstein, the Hulk of the comics speaks in a very simple pidgin English: “Hulk SMASH!” Like the characters in many a western and the guys on Route 66, Banner becomes a drifter, unable to put down roots because of the turmoil that follows him wherever he goes. It is a very strong concept.

A very crudely animated version of the Hulk came on Saturday morning children’s television as early as 1966, four years after debuting in the comics. Marvel’s early screen efforts were a far cry from their eventual near-takeover of Hollywood.

CBS got it right with a prime-time series that ran from 1978 through 1982, preceded by two featured length TV movies in 1977, and followed by some others in 1988, 1989 and 1990. As a tween when it premiered I was the PERFECT age for the show and a devotee for the first few years at least. Bill Bixby played the scientist hero, whose name has now been tweaked to “David”, presumably became “Bruce” was once associated with gays (true stereotypical fact)! The Hulk (body) was played bodybuilder and professional wrestler Lou Ferrigno, who, in his own way, became as big a star as Bixby already was. Although he didn’t speak in words (unlike the comic version) Hulk’s voice was provided by Ted Cassidy (who also narrated the show’s intro) for the first two years. After Cassidy’s death, Charles Napier did it. Jack Colvin played McGee, a nosey reporter. Another change from the comic. The TV Hulk didn’t HOP! I loved that feature of the comic and some of the other screen versions. Hulk got around by hopping great distances. Couldn’t fly, but did as was promised about Superman: leaped tall buildings in great bounds.

In 1982, NBC produced a much better animated cartoon version.

UPN had their own animated series in 1996 with Ferrigno reprising his title role, and TV actor Neal McDonough playing Banner.

Ang Lee’s 2003 film adaptation Hulk will always be divisive. Considered by some to be too talky and sensitive for an action film, it is admired by others for the very same reason. At the time, I associated it with Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spiderman with Tobey Maguire. A valid approach, and what I assumed would be the coming trend, some more mature explorations of latent dramatic themes in simple comic book stories. This one features Eric Bana (later of Troy and Munich), as well as Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, and Nick Nolte.

I found myself irritated when the 2008 reboot The Incredible Hulk was announced, a mere five years after the previous one. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this one was the second “official” MCU production (on the heels of Iron Man), and was setting up a new empire that would thrive like kudzu for decades. Edward Norton played the bifurcated Banner in the first film; since 2012 the role has been played by Mark Ruffalo.